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The Canon Powershot G9 in Japan

 By Nick Devlin

Motorman and Shinkansen, Tokyo, December 2007
Canon G9, 60mm eqivalent, f3.2 @ ISO 80

This is the story of a holiday affair -- the sort of fling one has when judgment is clouded by jet-lag and one too many bourbon sours in the hotel’s roof top lounge.  

You’re all ready for a week of quality time with your beloved Leica in a foreign land awash with photo opportunities. Your batteries are charged and your bag packed. And then a friend, we’ll call him “Michael”, phones up and innocently mentions that he has a friend you should meet.  The friend is new on the scene, and looking to have some fun.  He lets slip that his friend is petite, shapely and easy going. “You might enjoy traveling together”, he says.  "Why don’t we all get together over coffee"?  

And so it begins. The jealousy. The doubts and recriminations. The abandonment.  The pure fun taking photos.

But seriously, who takes their M8 to Japan and ends up leaving it in the bag (or the hotel room) most of the time?   The answer, it turns out, is me.

With only eleven days in which to savour a first-taste of Japan,  I chose to travel as light as possible.  In my old universe, this meant the Leica M8 with a 28/35/50 Tri-Elmar.  At the last minute, Michael suggested that I also take the new Canon G9 and put it through its paces as a travel camera. No harm, I thought, as it’ll be nice to have a point-and-shoot for ‘happy snaps’ along the way.

As the story unfolded, however, this solid, dependable little blob of consumer electronics became my constant companion, and the Leica a lonely bag-warmer.  This is the tale of how my paradigm on ‘serious’ travel cameras changed.

A Word on My Travel Philosophy

A foreword to quell the haters might be in order. This piece is not prescriptive of the “right” way to travel or photograph. I travel to travel, not to produce commercial-grade photography – that’s a side benefit if it happens.  I have suffered one too many trips degraded by the presence of too much heavy gear hanging, both literally and figuratively, like an albatross around my neck. The compromise is that I carry light, compact cameras, which afford me a modest, core focal-length range.  No tripods. No flashes. No long teles. No laptop. 

Of course, I could easily have produced bigger, badder images with my Canon 1DsMK II and a coterie of “L” glass.  Could have, that is, but for the fact that my shoulders would have taken one look at that kit in the morning and marched me out the door cameraless.  

The only great camera is the camera that’s there with you when the light happens.

Carp City, Tokyo, December 2007
Canon G9, 35mm Equivalent, f3.5, ISO 80

On the Ground

In my perfect world, a camera should fit into the pocket of my fleece or shell, and that’s exactly where the G9 went.

The M8 isn’t a pocket camera.  It demands a shoulder all to itself, and that’s where our relationship began to sour.  On my first foray into the maelstrom of the Tokyo rush hour, I wanted to roll as unencumbered as possible, so the M8 stayed in the hotel room.  The ‘serious’ photography would begin later, I told myself, when the jet-lag starts to wane and my feet gain confidence on this foreign soil. 

In reality, the ‘serious’ photography began about 20 minutes later when I snapped Carp City.  A half-dozen more ‘keeper’ frames emerged from this first dalliance with the city, and the seditious thoughts started to creep in. 

All The Fish In The Sea, Tokyo, December 2007
Canon G9, 105mm equivalent, f4.8, 1/30th, @ISO 400

In The Hand

To a long-time Leicaphile, the G9 felt good in the hand. It is solid and hefty, owing to its solid metal construction. With a Lensmate hood and Richard Franiec's grip installed, the camera sits solidly in the hands, in a close, compact form reminiscent of the CL.  The Lensmate hood and grip are well thought-out, precisely machined accessories and give ones fingers excellent purchase on the camera. 

Moreover, they greatly improve the tactile experience of holding the G9, making it the equal of many traditional mechanical cameras.  In fact, the finely cross-hatched texture of the Lensmate just begged to be turned like the focussing ring on my favourite Contax lenses from the olden days. To my mind, these accessories are essential to making the G9 a real ‘photographer’s camera’.

Also thanks to the Lensmate, the G9 was a joy to carry – something I can say of very few cameras.  With the Lensmate cradled between my thumb and forefinger (and a wrist strap on for piece of mind (forget the shoulder strap provided)), I happily carried the G9 for hours and hours.  This also made the G9 my camera of first-resort when unexpected images appeared. Motorman and Shinkansen would never have been captured but-for the fact that the camera was but a second from my eye. A camera in my shoulder-bag wouldn’t have stood a chance of making this image.

In Play

Awakened with single well-placed button, the G9 springs smoothly and quietly to life, ready to capture an image in just under a second.  The LCD is large and bright, displaying the full image area, along with all relevant camera data, including a live histogram.

The camera focuses fairly quickly and with good accuracy.  With many subjects, like the fast moving monkey fur I encountered when photographing the snow monkeys at Jigokudani, it beat my critical focusing speed on the Leica hands-down.  While photographing the monkeys I also tried out the G9’s ‘face detection’ focusing mode. Suffice to say that it worked very well, even in the interspecies context.

Disturbingly, it also beat the pants off the Leica in two of the other major areas: exposure and white balance.  The G9’s metering is superbly accurate.  This was in stark contrast to the M8’s metering, which I find crude and unreliable.  The same holds true for white balance though this is relevant only when shooting jpegs.  My $500 camera consistently knew the light temperature, even in mixed-lighting torture tests, whereas the $5,000 Leica rarely had a clue.

As expected, the G9 offers the usual cornucopia of exposure modes. For the most part, I stuck to full Program auto-exposure, with brief stints on Shutter Priority with dynamic subjects. In all but the most extreme lighting, the G9 did a near-perfect job of preserving highlight and shadow detail in important subject areas.

Also unlike the Leica, the G9 allows exposure compensation to be quickly dialed-in without a minor symphony of dual-handed button pressing.  Ditto for focus-point selection.  

The real star of the show, however, is the ISO selector dial atop the left side of the camera.  I worked principally with the dial set to “Auto”, allowing the camera to safety-shift to a higher ISO when needed.  It is remarkable that camera makers have taken this long into the digital revolution to realize that instantly variable ISO is a tremendous tool for photographers working in rapidly changing lighting environments.  ISO is now the third variable, along with shutter speed and aperture. Burying ISO controls behind two or three layers of button-pressing, dial turning menu controls is asinine and unacceptable. On the M8, it takes a minimum of four discrete actions, involving both hands, to change ISO.  The ability to vary the ISO with a single quick turn of the dial was one of my favourite features of the G9.

Exposure compensation is available in 1/3 stop increments through a single dedicated button on the back of the camera, coupled with a spin of the control wheel. Both the amount of compensation, and the graphic result, are immediately displayed on the LCD.  This control is well-executed and pro-worthy.

Similarly, key controls, such as macro-focusing, flash mode, white-balance and self-timer are easily accessed through the buttons contained within the control wheel.  Being a man, I flagrantly eschewed the instruction manual, choosing instead to see whether I could “dope-out” the controls.  With a few exceptions, the G9’s controls were easy to apprehend, master and use in the field.  After a day or two, I felt fluent with all the camera’s core functions. 

By day three I was getting hooked.  A small, silent camera covering the entire focal-length spectrum from 35-200mm, taking great pictures…. The Leica stopped speaking to me, and went into a deep sulk.

               

“Yes Dear”, Tokyo, December 2007
Canon G9, 200mm Equiv., f8, ISO 80

The only handling irritation with the G9 was the inability to keep the LCD off at all times except when the shutter button is depressed. This would save battery life and make the camera much more discrete.  While it is possible to turn the display off with multiple presses of the “display button”, this proved time consuming and clumsy. Worse still, it took longer to re-activate the camera from this state than to turn it on from the full “off” position, leading me to lose shots.

The solution appeared to be to set the “quick function” button to turn the display off. Curiously, however, the display re-activated instantly whenever the camera was moved at all – without any controls being depressed – obviously through some off-label use of the stabilization control or camera orientation system.  This is an awful example of a “smart” technology trying to be helpful, but achieving only immense annoyance.  Canon should fix this.  No one wants to walk around with the LCD on all the time: it wastes power and attracts unwanted attention.  The LCD should only light when the shutter is depressed slightly, and then fade politely from view when the shot is done.

Fall Pagoda, Kyoto, December 2007
Canon G9, 50mm Equiv., F3.2, ISO 80

Composition

The way in which one physically sees the subject through the camera is a defining element of one’s photographic style. Personally, I have always preferred viewfinder composition over SLR viewing or  using a live-view LCD. This was simply not possible with the G9 because the viewfinder is too inaccurate, especially in the telephoto range.  (Not surprising, really, given the limitations inherent to viewfinder cameras). 

A more accurate finder would probably be costly beyond the viable price-point for this camera.  This was really disappointing, since the finder itself is pleasingly bright and easy to use, even with eyeglasses. (In its present position, the Lensmate blocks a large portion of the viewfinder making the whole issue largely academic.) Ultimately, however, the inability to directly view the subject through an accurate optical finder will likely remain the biggest impediment to compact cameras being usable as fully professional imaging tools.

That said, LCD composition is accurate, and allows the photographer to hold the camera at angles, and in places, far removed from the eye.  This feature allowed me to capture several images on this trip which otherwise would not have been possible. For example, Fall Pagoda was taken with the camera cradled in the branches of a tree, allowing me to shoot at ISO 80 for maximum quality. I could not do this with the Leica, and consequently the G9 captured a superior image.

Despite the fact that I never grew to like composing on the LCD, I got excellent results working this way – at least as good as anything I’ve achieve working in my preferred mode.  This continues to trouble me.  I haven’t the slightest desire to compose my images on a TV screen.  In fact, I actively dislike the process at both a practical and conceptual level.  The idea of interacting with the world before my eyes through the mediating forces of a machine which disaggregates reality into a sterile digital code and reconstitutes a small and inferior electronic simulacrum of it inches from my face is distasteful to me.  Yet, it worked with my way of seeing exceptionally well.  I continue to hope (likely in vain) that viewfinder-based compact cameras will come into being for my professional use, while trying to learn why this dumbed-down view-camera mode of working was successful for me. 

Bathing Monkey, Yudanaka, December 2007
CANON G9, 150mm equivalent, f4.8,@ ISO 160

Dancing In The Dark

With conventional wisdom taking a beating, I decided to treat the G9 just like any other camera, and work at whatever ISO was needed for the subject.  At Tokyo’s Tsujiki fish market, the camera kept pace with the Leica, despite the latter having to work at ISO1250. How was this possible? Well, first of all, the G9 generally enjoyed a 1-stop advantage over the f4 Tri-Elmar.  Add to that its image stabilization technology, and the race was on.   While there was undeniably noise in the images, the G9 yielded image quality at least on par with what I would have expected from ISO 1600 films like HP5+ pushed two stops, or Ektapress, both of which I used extensively as a photojournalist.  I was particularly impressed by the vivid colours the G9 was able to maintain at these ISOs, even under a devil’s brew of mixed fluorescent, mercury-vapour, incandescent and natural lighting.

Many of the best images I produced in Japan were shot at ISO 200 or higher. These speeds were essential in both man-made and natural settings, especially in the dense old-growth cedar forests of Nikko, and in the wooded and shrine-dappled hills of Kyoto. In all of these settings, the G9 performed beautifully, giving me the confidence to shoot in flagrant disregard for the general lack of illumination.  This was a fun and freeing experience, which made me kind of love the G9.

Enchanted Cedars, Nikko, December 2007
Canon G9, 135mm Equiv, f3.5, 1/40th @ISO 640

This image from the old growth forest at Nikko was shot late in the day under heavy overcast skies. The Leica had long been relegated to my bag for lack of light.  The image was subjected to punishing post-processing to achieve the mythical light which best conveyed my feeling of the place. A 13x19 print elicits an immediate response from most viewers. Although somewhat painterly, the image is free of spotty colour noise and, at viewing distance, is pleasingly sharp. Even when pixel-peeped, the print holds-up.  This is exceptional performance from such a small and inexpensive camera, bearing in mind the shot was taken at 1/40th of a second with a 135mm equivalent focal length at ISO640.

The Steady Hand

Which brings me to the subject of Image Stabilization.  This is the revolution. Bring the biggest sensor you want to the party, but it doesn’t take much camera shake to melt those precious megapixels together and erase effective resolution.  For small-sensor cameras, the ability to work at lower ISOs is also critical to image quality, making slower shutter speeds doubly important.  The G9’s imagine stabilization is the best I’ve ever used, and was a key reason to my preferring it over the Leica.  The camera’s ability to capture tack sharp images at exposures down to 1/2 second with a bit of proper bracing made working with the G9 a real joy. It literally made my photography bigger -- allowing me to shoot in light that would otherwise have been impossible. 

Image Stabilization also proved useful in better lighting conditions, raising my ratio of critically sharp images to a higher level than with almost any other camera I have ever used.  I attribute this to the G9’s IS.  To be blunt, I can’t see the point of non image stabilized cameras anymore.  This tool is just too powerful to ignore. While it is of limited use for dynamic subjects, it is indispensable in many, many situations where great pictures are made or missed. For travel photography, it is a real gift.

           

Late Night Barber Shop, Kyoto, December 2007
Canon G9, 100mm equivalent, f4, 1/20 sec, ISO800

From Low Light to Total Darkness

One night in Kyoto, with the December sun dropping below the horizon at a shade past four in the afternoon, the light ran out long before my zeal for picture making. Left with no other option, I took the G9 out into darkened streets of the storied Gion district and happily snapped away.  The results were everything I could have hoped for.  With a steady hand, the G9’s IS and ISO 800, I was able to photograph the shrine on my street corner in near total darkness. Yes, the image is noisy -- the black sky is textured with artifacting, and the detail is much degraded from what it would have been in the light of day. But personally, I love the image.  In 20 years of photography, I have never before worked with relative impunity in total darkness and captured pleasing, evocative images. 

Much as Salgado said that grain is not a defect, but a stamp which says, “This is a photograph”, the noise in the night-time images produced by the G9 is not a defect, but the aesthetic of the medium.  I happen to like it, a lot.  And so does virtually everyone I show it to in print. Run through Noiseware, or other advanced noise filters, the images become very clean. I, however, prefer sharp and noisy over creamy digital. In Michael’s words, season to taste.   

                   

Night Shrine, Kyoto, December 2007
Canon G9, 35mm Equiv, 1/2 sec, f2.8 @IS0800

Overall Image Quality

The proof, of course, is in the pudding, and I could only really know whether my dalliance with the G9 had been as fruitful as I thought by putting images on paper. I processed and printed the G9’s files through Lightroom, and made prints with an Epson 3800 on Hannemuhle’s lovely Glossy Fine Art baryta paper and Ilford’s atrociously named Gold Fibre Silk. I happen to prefer the Hannemuhle, but both papers are lustrous to look at and a joy to hold. 

On 13x19 sheets, with decent borders, the prints simply sing. The most impressive was the black and white Motorman and Shinkansen. The printed image displays every bit of detail expected and a sumptuous tonal range. It is completely devoid of noise or other aberrations.  The light-to-dark transitions on the noses of the bullet trains are of a quality I would associate with a medium format Delta 100 negative.  If this print was the product of my Mamiya 6, I would be satisfied.  While the G9’s image likely lacks the muscle for dramatic enlargement, this is still an amazing achievement.                      

                   

Macaque Family, Yudanaka, December 2007
Canon G9, 210mm Equiv, f4.8, 1/100 sec, ISO100

The G9’s image quality does have limitations.  High contrast edges frequently display vivid colour fringing. This cleans up well in Lightroom or with selective desaturation in Photoshop, but nonetheless demonstrates the frailty of the small sensor.  Similarly, I felt that data was less robust than with larger format sensors.  That is, odd areas of patchy noise or solarization appeared more quickly when the image was forcibly manipulated (eg: for tone curve or channel desaturation in B&W).  

I also felt that there was a very thin line between the appearance of over-sharpening and lack of punch in very fine detail.  I say *felt* because I have no empirical evidence of this, and it's purely a visceral sense of how the digital ‘negatives’ behaved. 

Since no brick walls or newspaper were harmed in the making of this essay, I cannot say whether the G9 is better or worse in absolute resolution compared to any other camera. Suffice to say that it produces some damn detailed images.  At viewing distance on a big print it leaves little to be desired. The detail-rich fur of the snow monkeys is admirably resolved on the G9.  Up close, the quality is not quite what I would expect from a 5D or a 10MP DSLR, but it’s very, very close, especially considering that the images were all shot at ISO ranging from 125 to 200

(I happen to think that 13x19 is a big print. In 15 years with film I can count on one hand the number of times I printed much larger) 

It’s Not All Roses

Like all traveling companions, the G9 grew to irritate me in a number of ways. All of my complaints relate to responsiveness, or lack thereof.  The electronic zoom control is the first problem.  While the G9 offers a very handy focal-range, zooming is accomplished by a rocker switch on the top of the camera. The micro-motor which drives the zoom has a perceptible response-lag and drives the lens forward in ‘chunks’, rather than a seamless progression of focal-length. This makes the G9 more of a step-zoom than a true fully-variable focal length camera. In fairness, the thirteen increments of focal length, which was the most I could achieve when zooming upwards through the range, are a respectable variety of focal lengths, and a damn-sight better than no zoom at all. But it is, nonetheless, an annoying control mechanism.

I would far, far prefer a manual, mechanically zoomed lens. Since I would never use the camera without the Lensmate, I would be perfectly happy if this compromise were achieved at the cost of a bigger lens which does not fully retract. 

Frankly, the trope of all digicams having retracting lenses baffles me.  Yes, it reduces size and protects the lens, but on a serious camera, which the G9 aspires to be, a little extra bulk is much less of a problem than having a retracted lens when a great photo presents itself. Moreover, the zooming mechanism is also the only part of the G9 which feels frail. I have no basis to say it is prone to failure, but it is buzzy and plasticky in a way that ill-befits an otherwise very solid machine.  A more robust manual zoom would be ideal. Again, cost might preclude this more professional solution.  

The answer is a more robust and consequently larger *manual* zoom.  Please Canon. Pretty please with sugar on top.  This is what the “G” needs to be a true ‘PRO-sumer’ camera.

                       

Snow Monkey with an Attitude, Yudanaka, December 2007
Canon G9, 210mm equiv, f4.8, 1/200, @ISO 125

From a working perspective, the zoom control also occupies the trigger finger, taking it off the shutter, which is sub-optimal for capturing decisive moments.  There is no reason why, at a minimum, this switch couldn’t be moved to the rear of the camera to be run by the photographer’s thumb.

That said, however, the reach of the G9’s lens was a major factor which caused it to carry-favour over the Leica.  I would be loathe to travel again without a lens reaching to the equivalent of 150 or 200mm. Too many good shots happen beyond 70mm.

The other major deficiency is the G9’s noticeable shutter-lag. While not long by any objective measure, the delay between depression of the shutter and actual exposure makes capturing the decisive moment rather difficult. I’m sure that this lag is measured in fractions of a second, but it irritated me whenever my subject was something other than a stationary landscape.

It also takes a moment for the G9 to display the image and/or be ready to shoot once more.  Coming from a background of high-end SLRs and rangefinders, this palpable lack of responsiveness is a deal breaker for me.  There is nothing ‘wrong’ with the G9. It’s just its inherent nature as a digicam to be slower, I guess. Go pick up any first generation DSLR immediately after shooting with your contemporary model, and you will know exactly what I mean.  

But Will It Last?

So was it a fling, or something more serious? I’m still ask myself that every time I look at the prints.  At the end of the day, I think my affair with the G9 will remain just that.  It’s not quite a keeper just yet. But it’s oh, so very close.  With tweaking in the right places, the next generation of high-end digicams might just become the perfect travel cameras.

And what of my relationship with the M8?  Let’s just say I haven’t served divorce papers quite yet, but I’m thinking about it. While the physical aesthetic of our tools is essential to a good creative relationship, my time with the G9 showed me that, for me, the cutting edge of technology is capable of more ultimate artistic satisfaction than the M8 can deliver. 

Nick Devlin – January, 2008


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Concepts: Shutter speed, Leica Camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Image stabilization, Camera, Photography, Digital camera, Image-stabilized binoculars

Entities: Kyoto, Tokyo, The Leica, Canon, Nikko, Japan, ISO, consumer electronics, DSLR, electronic zoom, Michael, ISO, Michael Reichmann, Michael, Shinkansen, Richard Franiec, Nick Devlin, Salgado, Hannemuhle, M8, SLR, SLRs

Tags: cameras, image, Leica, travel cameras, button, image stabilization, focal lengths, hotel room, focal length camera, relevant camera data, shutter speeds, vivid colour, white balance, new canon g9, compact cameras, photography, snow monkeys, great camera, monkeys, dynamic subjects, Lensmate hood, camera makers, silent camera, camera orientation, pocket camera, exposure compensation, steady hand, control wheel, total darkness, zoom control, inexpensive camera, tools, big print, sharp images, ISO selector dial, dependable little blob, canon 1dsmk ii, viewfinder, slower shutter speeds, foreign land awash